Chisom and I were best friends and worst enemies. We were always fighting. We gutted ourselves like the fishermen did to the fish on the boats that hovered in the horizon. Something about Chisom always pricked me, pushed me to the edge of madness. But she was my best friend, my only friend.
Though we were neighbors, we did not go to school together. Her father worked at a bank on the island and could afford private school fees for his three children. My father was a schoolteacher and my brothers and I went to the government school down the street with peeling paint and toilets that overflowed, forcing us to squat in the bush behind the school fence. We checked the soil for scorpions and snakes before pulling our underwear down to our shaking ankles.
When she came home from school, Chisom would cross the street from her house to our tenement yard, come up the steps and knock on the screen door. She would shout my name like it was a curse, like it was a bad word she was trying to spit out. My mother would scold her, ask her what they were teaching her in that private school, the one where they were fed three times before day’s end, where they marched like young cadets into shiny classrooms with blackboards freshly blackened and chalk that did not disintegrate in their teacher’s hands. She shouted my name like that because she knew my mother would scold me, that she would pull my ear and ask me why I had that Chisom girl hollering my name through our tenement complex like I was some type of bad spirit. And I suppose Chisom also did it because she wanted me on edge, she wanted me walking through life on my tip toes, looking over my shoulder like there was always something coming in the darkness for me.
Chisom would come into the house bearing a gift, cut up pineapple from the fruit seller, corn on the cobb with coconut strips and soft ube. When I took the gift, like she knew I would, and gobbled down the chocolate biscuits from the shopkeeper’s, she would rub her hands together like she was some type of kingpin, and that was my cue to follow her. Wherever she went, I went.
We often spent our afternoons chasing the neighborhood boys, watching them as they played football in the dusty street, as they kicked cans into goalposts they had made from discarded wood salvaged from the carpenter’s workshop. We would whisper about school, about the teachers who flogged us for missing our times tables and I would tell her all about the piece of ceiling wood that had fallen and hit a boy on the head, sending him to the hospital.
“Did he bleed?” Chisom would ask. “How much blood?” She wanted those types of details, the gory, the grotesque. I always denied her the satisfaction. She would pinch my arm, demand that I tell her whether there were bits of brain on the floor, whether I had seen his skull as he was carried away to the waiting car. And I would look at her and shake my head until she hit me so hard that I bawled over and shared every detail I could remember, the way he slumped, his neck sideways, his eyes open, rolling in his head.
When we were done watching the boys, that’s when I knew it was time for “our own little adventure.” I would look up to make sure my mother was not looking down at me from our balcony. Chisom would crane her neck to check that their iron gate was closed. Then we would disappear down the alleyway, cross the main road, and walk into the teeming market.
Chisom was taller than me, graceful, with light footsteps that hardly touched the ground. While I bumbled along, clumsy, knocking things over with my two left feet, she seemed to glide through the market stalls like a dark swan princess, a dancer in the middle of a complex routine. I often tried to match her stride, to put my foot where hers had been. But it never worked in my favor. It always sent me tumbling into passerby, middle aged women who reminded me of my mother when they screamed “Get out of the way!”
In the market, we stole mostly fruits. We snatched them from unsuspecting market women, large women with scarves around their heads, with thick cloth wrapped around their bosoms. We would angle around a particular stall, a woman distracted by the baby on her back, and Chisom would glide in between the woman and her baskets of oranges, slipping her thin fingers into the small collection of glistening fruit. She liked to push her luck, to dangle the fruit between her fingers, smile at me as I waited in the corner with my book bag, my chest thumping. We both knew that thieves were flogged in the market. Once, one thief was beaten so badly that he died a few days later. In the corner, I would grit my teeth and curse myself, wonder why I chose a foe to be my only friend in our neighborhood.
With my book bag bulging with stolen fruit, we would wander the neighborhood. We liked to sneak in between alleyways and peer into people’s bedrooms. We watched mothers feeding their babies, fathers at their desks calculating their pay, children fighting over toys in crowded rooms. Sometimes we went over to the big nurse’s flat. We would watch her through her shuttered windows, peek in through the cracks as she undressed in front of the bus driver and he climbed on top of her. Chisom would pinch me as I made gagging sounds but I never looked away, not when he heaved and heaved, moving this way, that way. I did not look away even when he got up, cleansed himself, and dashed out of the room. And when her husband came bouncing through the door, announcing his presence by shouting her name, my eyes would still remain pressed against the windowsill. In those moments, I could understand why Chisom reveled in breaking things, rules, her mother’s soup pots. I always left the big nurse’s window feeling triumphant, like I had a secret that no one could ever take away from me. And even when Chisom made kissing sounds, when she teased me for my grin, I would wave her off because she couldn’t touch me even if she tried.
Some evenings, we would wander by the train tracks, watching people shit in the bushes. We would throw udala seeds at them and dash between the carcasses of long abandoned trains. Here too I would follow Chisom’s lead. She would find our target, an elderly man with creaking knees, and we would hurl stones as hard as we could, hitting him in the back, in the buttocks. We laughed until we cried, then we waited until he was no longer looking around him before hurling more rocks in his direction. I always felt a pang of guilt but Chisom’s laughter steeled me against its gnawing. I would look at her, her isi-owu braids, sticking out in all directions, the lines around her dark mouth like snakes in the soil, and think how much I hated her gleefulness in the face of other’s pain. But I always went along. I never questioned her lead in our adventures, never thought I should try to make other friends.
The day we found the body she had come to the tenement yard like she always did. But that day was different because instead of shouting my name, Chisom asked my mother to call me. My mother came into my room, both eyebrows raised. “Chisom is here for you,” she said. “But I want you back here before six.”
I nodded and dashed out the door knowing I would not be home by six and that my mother would slap me when I came home much later, ask me why I took advantage of her generosity. “Don’t you know how hard it is to be your mother,” she would say. “Don’t you see how hard I work. If your father was here would you be behaving in such a disgraceful manner? I should punish you more often.”
Chisom moved like a lumbering animal that day. She was quiet too, and she led me away from the market, past the train tracks and towards a segment of our neighborhood we never dared venture.
The forest loomed over us as we entered. I hissed at Chisom.
“We can’t go in there,” I said even though I followed her, even though I would have followed her anywhere. But I remembered the stories my father had told me about the forest when he was alive. He had told me that wild animals with large teeth and devilish mouths lived in the forest, that they ate children, ripping their limbs like they were nothing but rag dolls. I called after Chisom who ventured deeper and deeper within the towering trees, never looking back.
When I caught up to Chisom, she had stopped to rest under a tree. Her face, like mine, was covered in sweat. She was still in her school uniform, a white shirt and blue skirt, and she looked at me with tears in her eyes.
I sat down next to Chisom and suddenly my fear of the forest dissipated. It was replaced by confusion. Chisom was the strongest of the two of us; I had never seen her cry, not even when her older brother died two years ago. When my father died, she had scolded me for wailing, calling me a silly girl. Now tears stained her cheeks and dripped down to her blouse.
“Can I tell you something?” Chisom said. I nodded, wondering what could possibly make Chisom cry.
“What do I do about him?” she said.
“About who?” I wanted to know.
“Ezekiel. He comes in at night and touches me. I don’t like it.”
I paused, even more confused. Ezekiel was their cousin, a boy of seventeen who had come to live with them from a far away village. He was tall and gangly, with messy hair and even messier clothes. He always smelled of tobacco and I realized then that I had never liked him.
“We should report him,” I said but Chisom shook her head. She picked up a stick from the ground and began to draw circles in the dirt. We sat for many minutes. Over the noise of the birds, I could hear Chisom’s breathing, coming out of her chest in a loud hum. She did not look at me. Only continued to make shapes in the ground. Then suddenly, she got up and dusted her skirt. She continued into the forest and I followed after her.
The forest enveloped us with its birch smells. It seeped into our hair, plaited and held up on our heads with dangling beads that clinked against one another as we walked. I followed Chisom, thinking of the sudden pain in my chest that made me feel like I’d faint. I thought of Ezekiel, his rotting teeth, eyes yellowed, and I hated him even more. I felt a strange sense of maternal protection towards Chisom, a feeling that made me uneasy for the way it suddenly changed our relationship.
We came across the body as soon as Chisom decided to turn back towards town. We were approaching a dense segment of trees and shrubbery when a wild smell violated our noses and caused Chisom to wretch. We saw the body immediately, decomposing under the dim sunlight. I shrieked and backed away but Chisom only clapped her hands. There was delight in her eyes and suddenly my friend was back, her grin lighting up her face, showing the mischief in her eyes.
She picked a thin branch from the forest floor and tiptoed towards the body. I tried to grab her hand, to pull her back in the other direction. But she wrestled away from me and soon she was poking the body, stabbing the oozing eyes with her stick.
“Who do you think it is?” she called out to me. It was no one that we recognized, no one from our neighborhood. The clothes were unfamiliar too, a thick jacket much too warm for the heat, leather trousers. It was a young man and we knew all the young men in our neighborhood. We wondered if it was the missing boy we had seen on the news, the one whose wealthy parents were offering millions for his whereabouts.
Chisom continued to stab the body. It oozed juices into the soil. I covered my mouth and nose with my shirt collar, begging Chisom to leave it alone.
“Promise you won’t tell anyone,” Chisom said when she was satisfied with messing with the dead body. I didn’t know what she wanted me to keep secret, her abuse at the hands of Ezekiel or the body that now lay deformed in front of us. But I nodded furiously.
When we left the forest, me pulling Chisom and her following me for once, my head was spinning. I had vomited twice over the smell of the dead body and my stomach hurt too. But as we ran out of the forest, running all the way home, I knew I would break my promise to Chisom, that I would tell my mother everything. I was never good at secrets.
I said goodbye to Chisom in front of her gate and dashed home where my mother was pounding yam in the communal kitchen. It was seven o’clock and my mother pulled my ear.
“Where have you been?” She shouted. I cried as I confessed, the weight of what I had just seen and heard overwhelming me. My mother had always said that there was a special place in hell for people who hurt children and I wanted desperately for her to fix things, to take me back to the day before or that afternoon even, when I did not have the burden of Chisom’s confession resting on me.
My mother clapped her hands and howled to the ceiling. She shouted my father’s name. “Ignatius,” she said, snapping her fingers. “Look what your daughter has told me.” She had a habit of talking to my dead father, having entire conversations with the framed photograph of him that rested on our television mantle. Other times she looked to the sky. She would tell me that my father in heaven was watching the way I was growing into a reckless bird. She would tell me that my father in heaven was disappointed in my disobedient ways.
My mother’s eyes narrowed in her head. Her scarf was tight and it pinched her face back so that she herself looked like a spirit.
“And you say you saw a dead body?” my mother said taking my hand. “Why oh why am I cursed with a daughter who does not listen? Let’s go,” she said as she marched me across the street to Chisom’s house.
Chisom’s mother was just climbing out of her car when we entered their compound. My mother greeted her by shrieking. She yanked me by my shirt collar and placed me between her and Chisom’s mother.
“Mrs. Eze,” my mother said to Chisom’s mother who looked at us bewildered. “There is a rotten seed in your house, a seed that must be rooted out!”
My mother told Mrs. Eze what Chisom had told me. Mrs. Eze’s eyes narrowed in her head, scanning me as though she was a bald eagle and I a mouse. She pursed her lips as my mother spoke, then her eyes flashed something ugly, something that made my hands tremble at my sides.
They wrestled each other to the ground, Mrs. Eze accusing my mother of spreading jealous rumors and my mother calling her a bad mother.
“Your daughter confided in her friend,” my mother said breathless, holding Chisom’s mother at arms length. “Yet you chose to bury your head in the sand.”
“You dare bring wretched hearsay into my house,” Chisom’s mother said. “I knew you have always been jealous of my family.”
When we were kicked out of the house, I could see Chisom from the second floor window. I could not read her expression but I left feeling as though I too had violated her.
The next night, we heard loud banging on our door. The police had come as Mrs. Eze promised. They kicked down our wooden door and dragged my mother and me out of bed. They pulled me by my ears and made me sit on the steps. My mother shouted at them to leave her daughter alone.
“She is just a child.” My mother said. “Her only crime is telling the truth.” But the police officer slapped her and told her to be quiet. My mother did not heed them. She continued to shout so that our tenement neighbors began to poke their heads out of their windows to inquire what all the commotion was about.
“You should go and arrest Mrs. Eze,” my mother said. “She is the one who refuses to protect her daughter from Ezekiel.”
The police officers finally silenced my mother by handcuffing her and dragging her back into the house. The one that remained outside turned to me.
“So you saw a dead body and you decided to play with it,” the officer said. He was young and his mustache twitched when he spoke. I tried not to look at him.
“It’s not true!” I said.
“Well your friend Chisom says that you poked the dead body’s eyes with a stick and threw rocks at it. She says you stood on its head and crushed its skull.”
“I didn’t do it. Chisom did it! It was her I swear. I told her that we should leave but she refused.”
“So you’re lying to a police officer?” The young man said. My tears continued to flow down my cheeks.
“I didn’t do it,” I whimpered.
“Well you know that the body was of Joseph Adu whose parents have put up nearly two million to find. You know that they want you arrested for desecrating his corpse.”
I wailed. In the house I could hear my mother arguing with the police and the officer telling her to shut up.
“I’m sure you’ve been paid a handsome sum to harass a child,” I could hear my mother saying.
When the police officers finally left, my mother pulled me close and kissed my forehead. “You are alright,” my mother said. “Ignatius, our daughter is growing into a fine young woman.”
That night as I slept, I heard a faint knocking on the door. I crawled out of bed, past my mother’s room, and towards the door. I thought the police had returned and this time I was going to be brave. I would tell them to go to hell. I would wag my finger like my mother, tell them to eat shit. But at the door, it was not the police but Chisom who stood in her nightgown, her eyes wet with tears. She pulled me into a bear hug. At first I was too bewildered to reciprocate. Her breath was on my neck and she whispered words I could not understand. I folded my arms around her thin shoulders and we held on to each other well into the night.